Wednesday, January 1, 2014

DROPPING WINEGLASS FALLING DOWN: A tribute to our mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts.

By Kate Barry  

Berenicci Hershorn is a Toronto gem. Her recent work DROPPING WINEGLASS FALLING DOWN demonstrated the richness of an artist who has been performing throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and into the twenty-first century. DROPPING WINEGLASS FALLING DOWN was performed, in November 2013, as part of the Babble (Babel) Public Performance Event, Hart House, University of Toronto. Babble (Babel) was a series organized by WIA (Woman in Action) Projects, curated by Pam Patterson and Leena Raudvee. As Hershorn explained, "this series was formulated to examine the nature of language and communication within a feminist framing to reference the immigrant experience of our female ancestors."

In a recent interview with me, I asked Hershorn to describe her performance in the once MEN-ONLY Hart House, University of Toronto:

“You climb the stone stairwell to the second floor and find your way down the hall to a small room. You enter by a door in the centre of the room; there are two large banks of gothic windows on the opposite wall. The room is dark, there are no lights on, and it’s an overcast day. I stand at a lectern in the centre of the room, two long tables stretch towards the doorway on either side of me. There are chairs placed in clusters against the walls for the audience to sit on. On one of the windowsills there is a large silver 'boom-box' with the aerial up and pointed out. The audience might wonder, is it broadcasting? Or is it receiving? The music that accompanies the performance is the sounds of a distant thunderstorm overlaid with the sounds a child intermittently practicing piano scales.

On the tables are several place settings, each contains a large empty bowl, a small bowl of salt, a candle, an onion, some matches and an egg. At another station, at the end of the table and apart from the place settings, there is a silver bucket full of water, a large knife, a stack of towels and a pile of soaps of various kinds in white and pink and red. The scent of these soaps overpowers the room."

Photography credit: Amy Wilson

Photography credit: Amy Wilson

Photography credit: Amy Wilson

In this two-hour performance art piece, Hershorn took her rightful place as a woman and an artist in the Hart House study and lecture room. She created a ritualistic atmosphere in order to remember and pay homage to her ancestors. She called up memories from her childhood and memories of her mother, her aunts and her grandmothers. Through an exploration of memory and its links to body and the sensorial, Hershorn elevated everyday kitchen items such as bowls, knives and dish towels. She enticed the audience’s senses with the potent mixture of soap and onions and she used the everyday actions of chopping vegetables and cleaning to create an artistic tableau.

DROPPING WINEGLASS FALLING DOWN attempted to examine how memory functions, how it is formed and most importantly, how family lore is often based on memory. In the performance, the artist spent hours cutting spiral ribbons from a thesaurus. This action of cutting paper was inspired by Hershorn's childhood memory of cutting spirals for the first time from a flat piece of ordinary paper. This was her first memory of being an artist. It was the first time she felt that sensation of creating a 3D object, opening up for her young self a new sense of space and time.

Photography credit: Miklos LeGrady

For this performance Hershorn goes back to that liminal moment of childhood fascination. This time, however, she is investigating memory. Specifically, she examined memory in relationship to information that has been lost, she is curious about the memories that are unspoken and missing from her family history. Hershorn describes her process in detail.

"At the lectern, I am slowly and painstakingly cutting long spirals out of pages ripped from a densely worded thesaurus. I am in deep in concentration and I take what seems like a long time cutting each spiral, opening up the flat pages into long fragile ribbons and tossing them over the edge of the lectern. Once I have several paper spirals cut and tossed, I move around to the other side of the lectern and I stretch out each paper spiral ribbon and I place them along each of the tables.

I then pick up the knife and walk to one of the bowls, I pour the salt into the bowl, and I chop the onion in two, I set the candle in the salt and I light the candle. I walk with the knife to the water bucket and I wash it with one of the scented soaps, the scent overwhelms my face. Then, I dry my hands carefully and I return to the lectern to resume my paper spiral cutting from the book.

These actions are repeated over the two hours of performance until all the soaps have been used, all the candles lit, all the onions cut. The smells of the fire, the sulphur, the perfume and the disinfectant creates a physical presence in the room.”

In her performance, the actions of cutting spirals out of the thesaurus, pouring the salt, lighting the candle, cutting the onions and washing the knife, symbolized her search for her lost history. Each spiral she created represented a memory, and it also symbolized the told and untold stories of her family's experience of immigration. The cutting, chopping and ceremonious placement of items on the tables also represented the spoken and unspoken memories in her family's matrilineage.

I am motivated to write about DROPPING WINEGLASS FALLING DOWN because I think it is important to create a form for performance art that shifts away from commodity fetishism and the cult of the celebrity artist. I am responding here to a trend in the art world regarding super rich & famous people taking up precious real estate in museums and galleries as performance artists, curators, or by posing as experts in the field of visual culture. The beauty and authenticity of Berenicci Hershorn's performance, DROPPING WINEGLASS FALLING DOWN simply moved and inspired me to celebrate an artwork about real imagination, genuine creativity and artistic talent.

WIA is a feminist platform run as part of the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education (CWSE) at the at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto.

Berenicci Hershorn upcoming performances includes a Performance Installation at Hamilton Artists Inc. The performance is Friday, July 11, 2013, 7-11pm. The installation remains on view until July 31, 2014.